What Are the Most Common Attorney Ethics Violations?

Attorneys are held to high ethical standards. They often are privy to very sensitive information about their clients. Sharing that information inappropriately would constitute a breach of attorney-client privilege.

That’s just one example of an ethics violation. Unfortunately, ethics violations do occur. Some types are more common than others. The most common include the following:

Violations Resulting from Lack of Technological Literacy

It’s important to understand that not all ethics violations are intentional. For example, some attorneys are required to use technology they’re not familiar or comfortable with. They may thus accidentally allow sensitive client information to leak.

Many vendors offer training programs to assist in this area. An attorney who worries they might accidentally mishandle client information due to a lack of familiarity with new technologies should enroll in such a program.

Client Neglect

Sometimes, attorneys take on more cases they can handle. They may have good intentions when doing so. Many genuinely believe they can manage all the cases they accept.

This can cause them to stretch their bandwidth too thin. As a result, they might not give clients the attention they deserve.

The best way to avoid this violation is to pay attention to how stressed you are about the size of your caseload and how honest you are when clients ask if you’ve completed certain tasks. Ask for help from colleagues and take on fewer cases in the future if you notice any signs that you’ve taken on more than you’re equipped to handle.

Unreasonable Fee Modifications

The American Bar Association’s Model Rule 1.5 prohibits attorneys from charging unreasonable fees for their services. Some lawyers violate this rule when they attempt to modify their fee arrangements.

Clients need to thoroughly understand the nature of a fee arrangement. Contracts must address the scope of work that will be covered by a flat fee. They must also clearly explain how and why a fee arrangement could be modified. Violations are less likely to occur if clients know precisely what they’re getting into financially when hiring a lawyer.

Accepting ‘Accidental’ Clients

It’s becoming increasingly common for attorneys to offer potential clients advice via the internet. This can cause problems when potential clients believe that an attorney answering their questions now represents them.

To guard against attracting accidental clients, an attorney should ensure their website and social media pages feature disclaimers making it clear that answering someone’s questions doesn’t make an attorney their official legal representative. They should also generally only offer advice to potential clients who appear to be genuinely interested in hiring a lawyer.

Creating Hostile Witnesses

There are instances when criminal defense attorneys will interview witnesses who later become hostile during a trial, making statements that conflict with the statements they made during their initial interviews. This could potentially put the lawyer in a position to have to personally testify in a case in which the lawyer is also acting as an advocate, which is not permitted under the rules.

The best way to prevent this is to abide by the directions of ABA Criminal Justice Standard for the Defense Function 4-4.3(f). When interviewing a potential witness, an attorney should do so in the presence of another trustworthy and credible individual. This can help them more easily corroborate their account of the interview if a witness becomes hostile.

Exaggerating Qualifications

Attracting clients is a goal of most lawyers. To attract more clients, some attorneys exaggerate their credentials or even make false claims.

For example, a personal injury attorney trying to grow their business may make statements that seem to indicate they are experienced with courtroom litigation. This could be an ethics violation if, in reality, they actually settle almost all of their cases out of court.

It’s understandable that attorneys want to attract clients and grow their firms. However, honesty is always critical when speaking to one’s experience and qualifications. Any exaggerations or lies can result in problems for both an attorney and their clients.

Finally, some experts point out that an attorney’s personal life can cause them to commit ethics violations. If an attorney feels pressure to earn more money for their family, they might take on too much work and cope with the stress by developing substance abuse problems or simply neglecting their clients. 

This doesn’t need to happen. Being an attorney can be demanding, but it’s much less stressful in the long run if a lawyer takes steps to avoid the common ethics violations listed here.